New to DVD: The gentle comedy of Jacques Tati and the flights of fancy of Sylvain Chomet combine in this devastating, gorgeously animated elegy to the lost arts.
I remember first seeing The Illusionist at the 2010 New Zealand International Film Festival, on a cold Saturday afternoon at the beautiful Civic Theatre, less than five minutes after seeing Toy Story 3. I didn’t have much of an idea what I was in for either; I’d seen a few Tati films, but assumed his influence here would be minor, and my memory of Sylvain Chomet’s previous film, The Triplets of Belleville, was very vague. So I was a little disarmed when I sat down to find out there was little to no dialogue, and that the film was set in a very picturesque Edinburgh, not a location I associate with either Tati or Chomet.
What unfolded in the subsequent eighty minutes remains one of my most shattering experiences in a cinema. I remember leaving The Civic in tears and walking all the way to the bottom of Queen Street, unable to comprehend what I’d just seen. On this second viewing, I found myself similarly shattered, but even more impressed with the successes of the film, and was able to appreciate its depth and intelligence.
The Illusionist is an odd creature of a film. It’s a film about a down-on-his-luck magician performing in dive bars and as a closing act for foppish rock bands, who runs into a foreign maid, Alice. She assumes his tricks are a genuine display of magic, but they sadly are not, and he ends up supporting her as a father figure in 1950s Edinburgh. Compounding the oddness, The Illusionist is also an animated film based on a screenplay written by famed French filmmaker Jacques Tati as a love letter/apology to his estranged daughter. This script was then passed onto Chomet by the Tati estate, and the decision was made to turn it into an animated film. As such, the film is a unique marriage of the style of these two filmmakers: the gentle comedy and melancholy of Tati, and the flights of fancy and gorgeous compositions of Chomet.
Tati’s influence is felt throughout the entire film. All the comic beats are very Tati-esque, and as a result it is delightfully funny and charming, but most significantly the protagonist is a thinly veiled version of Tati himself. (The protagonist’s stage name is Tatischeff, which was Tati’s real surname.) Tatischeff bears some resemblance to the man both in looks and in his mannerisms: very shy, measured, but always comically so. There’s also the bittersweet fact that this film is based on Tati’s life, and how it functions as an apology to his daughter, which is even sadder given the events that transpire in the film.
Following my first viewing of The Illusionist, I was much too concerned with how I was feeling, and not incredibly concerned about what the film was about. Upon this second viewing, it’s clearer to me that this film is talking about loss, in all forms. As Tatischeff starts to provide more trinkets for Alice, it becomes heartbreakingly clear that she truly believes these things are coming out of thin air or some sleight-of-hand. She has no idea that Tatischeff has to work late-night jobs in garages or day-jobs, like selling women’s clothing to provide them for her, because his job as a magician just can’t earn enough money to do so. It’s because people no longer want to see his magic; they want to see rock bands or simply play the jukebox. The characters live with other vaudevillian performers, like a ventriloquist, who are also finding it very hard to get work. All these arts are dying out because of the lack of an audience, and these artists get even more decrepit as the film goes on. It’s about the loss of these arts.
To that end, the film is a painful commentary on itself. The Illusionist is almost entirely hand-drawn in a way that makes it seem like a film from the era that it is portraying. It is not just beautifully animated, it’s carefully animated; there is such specificity in how each character moves and talks, whether it be the protagonist’s measured head movements or the more comic movements of a foreign trapeze artist. It’s an art that Chomet clearly loves, despite hand-drawn animated films being a dying breed. The film is not only a love letter to its own sadly fading art, but to all artforms that audiences seem to have forgotten, even if time hasn’t.
It sounds like a depressing, relentless sort of a film, but it truly isn’t. Chomet (and Tati, it must be said) have crafted a visually stunning, richly layered film that has stuck with me for almost two years until this viewing, and will continue to stick with me. If there’s a sliver of hope that The Illusionist leaves me with, it’s that these arts can continue to flourish and mean something to somebody, and therefore be worthwhile, as one of the final images of the film shows. A little girl looks for a pencil she dropped underneath a seat. Tatischeff finds it, and replaces it with his own larger pencil through sleight of hand. The girl is delighted.
It still means something.